I must have been about ten and my sister eight when one of us somehow heard the word Figaro sung three times…the third Figaro drawn out. I remember us singing at the top of our voices, “Figaro…Figaro… Figaaaroooo”. It must have been irritating to anyone within hearing because to fully enjoy the three notes you have to sing them over and over.
I’ve no idea how the word or tune came to be a part of my life, but Figaro stuck. When the movie Amadeus came out in mid 80’s and one of his operas briefly mentioned in the movie was The Marriage of Figaro. Being in my teens, it dawned on me that this must be where the word came from. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to the entire opera. I thought I had and then I found out that my copy was missing parts and I can’t actually remember if anyone in the Opera actually sings, “Figaro Figaro Figaaaroooo”, but it was no longer a meaningless word. It was name. It was a person.
A few years after that I read that Mozart’s librettist (the guy who wrote the words for the opera) took the story from a play by some other man. The name Beaumarchais, sadly, didn’t have quite the same ring as Figaro. It remained nothing more than a ghostly imprint until I read Vincent Cronin’s biography of Louis XVI (the one who had his head chopped off by rabid French revolutionaries). It’s strange how some books change your life, not because they inspire you to live differently, but because they widen your mental vista. The name Beaumarchais cropped up and this time it made a permanent impression. I had to know more. I read ‘The Man who was Figaro, Beaumarchais’ by Frédéric Grendel and was blown away. Beaumarchais was amazing! His life was so bizarre and so epic you couldn’t make it up. Beaumarchais was a purchased title, the man’s real name was Pierre-Augustin de Caron. As Grendel points out, the name Caron at the time was pronounced in the family’s local accent as Caro. As the only son of a clockmaker named Caron (or Caro), the boy grew up being called ‘son of Caron’ or what in French would have sounded like one word, ‘Ficaro’ and the c ends up sounding interchangeable with a ‘g’. Figaro is Pierre-Augustin de Caron.
I bought a copy of Beaumarchais’ play early this year intending to read it, but I wasn’t in the mood until tonight. I lay in bed all evening laughing! It’s a comedy, but if you know that the main character is a literary ghost of the author and you know something of his life (which the public of the day did), it adds layers of poignant meaning which is why it took a phenomenal effort to get it past the King’s censors. Even so, there’s enough left to know he’s criticizing the system that allowed idiots power because of birth or who they knew, not what they knew or what they could do. The play had a profound influence on late 18th and early 19th century Europe politics as it encouraged people to question the divine right of Kings and those born to rule.
Beaumarchais was trained as a clockmaker. He invented an escapement that revolutionized time keeping at a very young age (which the King’s clockmaker tried to steal but Beaumarchais routed him earning his first powerful enemies). Beaumarchais, who was also a talented harpist ended up being the King’s clockmaker as well as teaching the King’s daughter’s to play the harp (earning many more enemies). He wasn’t a revolutionary, he was just a man who wanted to rise in the world above his “station” and have a comfortable life using his talents to provide for his family. Against all the odds (and the word odds is an understatement) he rose to influence the politics of the world though his plays and by working as a secret agent for the King (another horrifying story). Above all, without Beaumarchais’s personal economic sacrifice and brilliant strategy there is a high probability there would have been no United States of America because he took it upon himself to persuade Louis XVI to let him borrow the money to buy and send French guns and artillery to the colonies; anything to put the boot up the backside of The English. The new American government owed Beaumarchais a fortune (which he owed to others). It was 40 years before they paid his heirs a small portion of the money (I understand his heirs were never repaid in full – not something included in many books on early US history. The US government could at least have a statue of Beaumarchais…something to say, ‘Thanks for helping us win that little war that changed the history of the planet!’).
If you’re in need of a laugh, I highly recommend Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro. It’s a light-hearted romance about Figaro who wants to marry his beloved Suzanne, but their married employer, Count Almaviva, whose permission they need to wed, wants to seduce the unwilling Suzanne. When Figaro finds out he schemes to save his beloved, setting in motion all sorts of funny happenings.
P.S. If you’ve never heard the Overture to Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro, I highly recommend it. At least listen to the first thirty odd seconds. Every time I hear it, it makes me feel like I’m on a swing…you swing higher and higher and then you relax and fall backwards and you can’t help laughing…it’s utterly exhilarating!